In one of the early episodes of Father Brown, two middle-aged women are found murdered, and at each crime scene a cryptic note is left, a series of numbers and a Bible reference. Father Brown, who is homebound with a broken leg, eventually figures out what the cryptic note means.
The verse, naturally, comes to him first; it’s from Proverbs and says something about the fate of those who bear false witness. Then, with the help of his usual sidekicks, Mrs. McCarthy and Lady Felicia, he discovers that the numbers are a date and a time. It turns out to be the date and time when a convicted murderer was executed.
The two women, and a third who would have been the next victim if the killer hadn’t been caught, had been witnesses at the man’s trial, claiming they saw something which, as becomes clear later, they did not. The man had been wrongly executed; his wife died by suicide later, and their little boy was sent to live with an aunt in Wales, his name changed to hide his relationship to the convicted murderer.
Years later the condemned man was posthumously exonerated and pardoned, for all the good it did him by then. And his son grew up and became a police constable, eventually posted to the community where he had lived before his mother and father died. He never let go of the anger and bitterness against the three women whose testimony had sent his father to the gallows.
Would you have? Maybe you wouldn’t have resorted to murder, but could you have forgiven witnesses who falsely accused your father of a brutal crime and sent him to be hanged?
Those three women set terrible consequences in motion for the little boy who eventually grew up and became a constable. The aunt he was sent to live with changed his name to eliminate guilt by association, but she never let go of it. Every night that he lived in her home, she locked her bedroom door, in case he was like his father.
By the end of the episode Father Brown had figured out that Constable Pugh was the one who had killed the two false witnesses and was preparing to kill the third, and he managed to get him to tell him the whole story. When the constable finished, Father Brown said, “You poor little boy. I’m so sorry.”
And tears welled up in Hywel Pugh’s eyes, and with a catch in his voice he thanked the priest and said, “I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me.”
How might his life have been different if someone had?
Of course Father Brown was not the one who had done such harm to little Stevie Evans, son of a murderer; but somehow just having someone acknowledge that he had been dealt a terrible hand meant a lot to him. Father Brown could not spare Constable Pugh the legal consequences of his actions, but—as often happens in this program—he offered him the chance to confess and be forgiven by God. (Oddly, few killers ever take him up on the offer, even though they have to be aware that the priest is bound to keep everything they confess absolutely secret.)
For humans, forgiveness is difficult, and revenge against those who have wronged us is incredibly tempting. It’s human nature.
At many Roman sites that have been excavated by archaeologists, little rolls of metal—bronze, tin, or even lead—turn up. When these are unrolled, they’re found to contain curses. People had inscribed on those bits of metal messages to the gods, asking them to harm someone who had harmed them. Some of them are pretty trivial, like this one found in Bath and addressed to the local goddess, Sulis Minerva: “Docimedes has lost two gloves. He asks that the person who has stolen them should lose his mind and his eyes in the temple where she appoints.” (This particular curse was reported in Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace? The folks on Time Team have unearthed plenty of these rolled-up curses, too.)
We want to see people who have harmed us punished. We love the Buddhist notion of karma, in which people are rewarded or punished in their next life for their actions in this one. Even better is the more immediate version John Lennon wrote a song about, “Instant Karma.”
A friend of mine described an incident in which, with a little imagination, you could almost see instant karma in effect. He was walking down a sidewalk between his house and the library, and he slipped on a patch of ice and fell. In the tree above him a squirrel watched the action. My friend said the squirrel sounded for all the world like it was laughing at him.
And then the squirrel fell out of the tree.
(Of course it’s doubtful that the squirrel was actually laughing, but it sure seemed that way in the moment.)
We so want people to get what’s coming to them. And for some reason we want to keep tasting the bitterness of the injuries others have perpetrated against us. That’s human nature. Letting go of that bitterness, forgiving someone who has harmed us, maybe even—if it’s possible—reconciling with them: that’s what’s unnatural.
It’s hard for us to do it, and as a result it’s hard for us to imagine that God might do it. Not only that, but we don’t want to do it if it means having God forgive someone who has done us wrong.
Remember the story of Jonah? That parable is not about a prophet getting eaten by a fish. That’s one of the details in the story, but it’s about something else.
God sent Jonah to preach to Nineveh, the capital city of Jonah’s people’s mortal enemy, Assyria. Jonah didn’t want to go, and went the opposite direction, which is what led to his being swallowed by the fish. But after that, he does go to Nineveh, and we can imagine him grudgingly and halfheartedly standing on a street corner and muttering that God would destroy the city in 40 days if the people didn’t repent.
Much to Jonah’s amazement, they do repent, from the king on down to the lowliest slave, put on sackcloth, and cry out to God. And God forgives them, which makes Jonah absolutely livid.
Like the Romans rolling up their curses on strips of metal and tossing them in holy wells and streams, we want God to take our side and harm our enemies. We want God to be the enemy of our enemies.
But what if it’s we who are God’s enemy? What if we have wronged God?
I have in the past frequented quite a few blogs and online discussions in which I’ve interacted with Christians in very different traditions from ours. And in those interactions I hear some of those folks say something to the effect that “I’ve been taught that’s a sin and I will go to hell if I do it. Now you’re saying it’s not a sin, and I want to believe you; but what if you’re wrong? What if I do this thing I’ve been taught was a terrible sin, thinking it’s actually all right, and then when I die I wind up in hell because of it?”
These folks seem invariably to be part of Christian churches that control their people with endless lists of rules and the fear of hell for violating any of them. And it is incredibly hard for them to step away from that, because what if their church is right, and they end up in eternal conscious suffering as a result? (Good Lord, I hate that expression and the image of God as a sadistic monster that lies behind it.)
Maybe if they pick up the Bible and read it for themselves, they might discover otherwise. Or maybe they won’t.
Philip Yancey, in What’s So Amazing About Grace?, tells of a family where abuse and bitterness and unforgiveness run from generation to generation. He starts with a woman who grew up with an abusive father who at one point, in a drunken rage, kicks his wife out of the house, with nothing but what she could carry in two small suitcases, leaving their ten children behind, still suffering their father’s wrath. She has a daughter who eventually disowns her son who became a hippie in the 1960s.
Yancey tells of a conversation he had with the daughter at one point. “Margaret is a devout Christian who studies the Bible every day, and once I spoke to her about the parable of the Prodigal Son. ‘What do you do with that parable?’ I asked. ‘Do you hear its message of forgiveness?’
“She had obviously thought about the matter, for without hesitation she replied that the parable appears in Luke 15 as the third in a series of three: lost coin, lost sheep, lost son. She said the whole point of the Prodigal Son is to demonstrate how human beings differ from inanimate objects (coins) and from animals (sheep). ‘People have free will,’ she said. ‘They have to be morally responsible. That boy had to come crawling back on his knees. He had to repent. That was Jesus’ point’” (pp. 79-80).
Margaret’s son never came crawling back begging his mother’s forgiveness, so the two of them didn’t speak to one another for half of his life; and she utterly missed the point of the parable, which is about the joy of the boy’s father when he finally does return.
The young man, as he walked home, had rehearsed his act of contrition, his speech begging his father to give him not a place at his own table, but in the servants’ quarters, all he believed he deserved. And his father doesn’t even let him begin making that speech. Instead he embraces him, welcomes him home, and throws a party.
Isaiah 57:18 begins, “I have seen their ways, but I will heal them.” In other words, God says, I know who these people are, these people with whom I made a covenant that they have persistently violated. I know who they are, and I know what they are. They are sinful, and they aren’t capable, on their own, of not sinning. But I will heal them. I will bring them back to their land. I will renew the covenant I made with them. I will not hold a grudge; in fact, I will do what is impossible for humans: forgive and forget.
God’s ways are not our ways. God’s grace, God’s favor to us even though we emphatically have not earned it, is beyond anything we can fathom. But it is what gives us life. It is the best possible good news, and I would go so far as to argue that it should be the subject of every sermon preached in every church.